As CBO Director Decision Awaits, 2007 Choice Shows Party Matters

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By Jonathan Nicholson

Jan. 6 — As the decision about whether to retain Douglas Elmendorf at the head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office remains up in the air, at least one recent precedent—the experience of Donald Marron in 2007—may bode ill for Elmendorf at the CBO.

Notably, Marron, having served as an interim CBO director after the departure of Douglas Holtz-Eakin in 2006, has been thought to be on the short list of possible successors to Elmendorf. Marron's previous experience at the agency means he would likely be able to ease into the position quickly and could ease Democratic concerns that Republicans will appoint a more ideological candidate.

In late November 2014, Marron declined comment to Bloomberg BNA on whether he had been contacted about serving at the CBO again.

Elemendorf, having served in the Clinton administration Treasury Department and with a part of the Brookings Institution associated with Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, is seen as having a Democratic pedigree. He has been praised, though, by Democrats and Republicans for being relatively neutral in his CBO role.

Politicizing the CBO?

Some Democrats have warned that Republicans risk politicizing the CBO with their choice.

“Appointing a new CBO Director on the basis of ideology would fundamentally compromise the integrity of an institution that has served as a trusted scorekeeper,” a group of senators wrote in a Jan. 2 letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Republican budget leaders.

But, in that letter, the Democrats acknowledged that Republicans had the right to name a new director if they chose.

And the 2007 experience with Marron showed Democrats were willing to name a new director when they got the chance.

The 2006 Midterms

In the 2006 midterms, Democrats won control of the House and Senate. At the time, Marron was the interim CBO director, appointed by Republicans and serving out the remainder of Holtz-Eakin's four-year term.

In discussing the mid-session budget review in August 2006, Marron said a budget deficit then forecasted to be about 2 percent of gross domestic product was “sustainable” because it meant debt would not be growing faster than the economy.

That upset Kent Conrad, the North Dakota Democrat who would become the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee when control of the Senate switched. He called the remark “irresponsible.”

Marron was among the final three considered for the post and was interviewed, along with Gene Steuerle and Peter Orszag. Orszag eventually was picked as the new director and later served as President Barack Obama's first director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Interview Elmendorf, Holtz-Eakin Says

“This always happens,” Holtz-Eakin told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 6 of complaints the party in control of Congress would appoint a director with a similar background. “The job is technically open. It is hardly surprising that they would want to put their own stamp on the agency.”

Holtz-Eakin also said Elmendorf should be afforded the courtesy of an interview for the job, as Marron was.

“I believe they owe Douglas Elmendorf to do that,” Holtz-Eakin said.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the Democratic whip, said Jan. 6 the issue was less about the right of Republicans to appoint a director than what kind of director they appointed.

“I don't present any doubt that they're within their rights. The issue is CBO needs to be a nonpartisan analytical body that gives us the most honest answers based upon its economic analysis of our policies that are proposed,” Hoyer said.

“The critical question is not who the person is; it is that the expectation of the Congress is that they will give us honest, nonpolitical, economically well-grounded answers, and will not be asked to speculate—i.e., dynamic scoring—of what might happen,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Nicholson in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at